February 24, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Letter From Australia

By |2018-03-21T18:18:10+01:00December 1st, 2004|Essays|
Birds of a feather: Howard and Bush.

Pardon me, madam, but where is your lovely accent from?”

“Canada,” I replied. “And you?”

“India — I am Punjabi,” he said, starting the meter and turning into the empty mid-morning Monday street.

Manjit Boparai drives his own Black and White cab in Brisbane. “I am also a property investor. And a small business owner. And,” he added, flipping a CD into his Ford Falcon’s stereo, “a singer and song writer.”

A crude garage-concocted tune with vague Bollywood undertones began playing. Then Boparai’s voice began to sing in Punjabi style, “Aussie Aussie Aussie, I am a fairdinkum Aussie, We all are fairdinkum Aussie, Oi Oi Oi …”

I smiled. At the lights Boparai showed me laminated pictures of himself with the “important guy,” Prime Minister John Howard, and the premier of Queensland, Peter Beatty. Boparai had won a multicultural award for his musical efforts. As I looked at the pictures and accolades, all laminated, a didgeridoo strained in the background as “Song Australia,” faded out.

“And now here is the dancing version,”

I bought a copy of the CD, signed by Boparai, and warmly shook hands with him as I left the cab.

Every decade, since the planned post-war migration, about a million new migrants have come to call Australia home. In the first few decades of the white-only migration policy, Italians, Greeks and Turks made the uncomfortable dint in the predominantly white-Anglo-Saxon landscape, introducing olive oil, baklava and espresso to the land of meat pies, lamingtons and cordial. Eventually, and with much consternation, the rest of the world followed. By 2002, Caucasians were the minority migrants, totaling just over 21 percent. Europeans and former USSR accounted for 19.6 percent; North Americans just 1.9 percent. Over 55 percent of new Australians arrived from Asia and Oceania.

In the late 1980s, universities taught Pacific Rim Studies, recognizing the important ties between geography and its proximate influences such as economics and culture. Along the Pacific coastlines of North America and Australia, high school curriculums offered courses in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese. With China slowly emerging from a Maoist coma, the region was braced for an economic tsunami. It never happened. Japan went into recession in the late 90’s. The sleeping dragon capitulated to conditional resuscitation only.

With the uncertainties of the emergent Asian market, can Australia be blamed for pulling back to pause and ponder its colonial roots? In the late 1990s, Australia voted One Nation candidate and fish and chips shop owner Pauline Hanson in to Parliament on a xenophobic platform of fear and loathing. Her maiden speech polarized the house and the country. Last year Hanson’s detractors sent her to jail for a spell after she and another One Nation leader were accused of cooking the party membership numbers. Both were released on appeal.

Though their children learn Cantonese and vacation in Bali, most Australians still consider themselves the last outpost of the West. In the north of this small continent people readily recall the Japanese invasion and the campaigns in Borneo. To this culture of people, the yellow peril is not so distant as it is near and colonialism is alive and well. George W. Bush has become the new sovereign of the lost colony.

Why is Australia involved in the coalition of the willing? For protection, say many. Protection against terrorism. The Bali bombing took a terrible toll on the psyche of the country. Hence Australia’s readiness to serve in the campaign against terror — in Iraq. Three decades ago, Australia adopted a similarly misguided protectionist stance and joined Nixon in his campaign against communism. Today, most agree that Viet Nam was a mistake.

Blatantly bamboozled or not, in the October federal elections, voters chose to keep Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in power for another three year term. The risk against not electing Howard was a similar myth-risk (that the comfortable 6.6 percent interest rate would rise under the center-left Labour party). Chalk that election-winning fear-fact up to the slick politics of Mr. Howard. In reality, interest rates are fickle creatures loyal to none and are forecast to rise within the next year under Mr. Howard. (A reformed and multicultural-minded Pauline Hanson ran as an independent for the senate, but having her platform stolen by Howard and his Family First backers, she found comfort instead as a celebrity ballroom dancer on a reality TV show.)

The motivation behind this year’s Australian federal elections was not so much about the economy, human rights or the war in Iraq as about maintaining the façade of status quo. Despite the ever increasing number of Singhs, Lees and Pangs setting up house in the new satellite communities adjoining Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, there are few of these new Australian names in parliament, the senate or even in state politics (Melbourne does have Hong Kong-born Lord Mayor). Multiculturalism has its place, but not, generally, in the halls of Canberra today.

Still, as I, one of the few North American immigrants to Australia, sit and listen to Boparai’s woeful ode to the Aussie Digger, I know there is hope for the next generation. Maybe the son of a taxi driver, the daughter of a kebab stand cook, or as in Melbourne already, a Chinese-born immigrant will be Lord Mayor. Or maybe even Prime Minister.

The author was Photo Editor of The Prague Post for seven years before moving to Australia in 2003.

About the Author:

Heather Faulkner is a lifelong photo journalist who spent nearly a decade as photo editor of The Prague Post weekly in Prague, Czech Republic. A Canadian national, she moved to Australia in 2003.